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NANOPHYSICAL: artwork by Ludivine Lechat and Tom De Smedt for IMEC (European institute for nanotechnology).

In its outreach projects IMEC aims to show its scientific research through an educational, artistic
or design perspective. In winter 2010 we created a colorful 65 x 2.5 meters wall piece for IMEC. The artwork is inspired by common principles in nanotechnology: atoms, molecules, nerve cells, tissues, biochips, and so on.

  • Format: 66.6 x 2.6 meters, produced on canvas mounted to the walls.
  • Software: NodeBox & Adobe Illustrator. 











Background information

The first step was to create a library of individual elements. Each element is a detailed vector
drawing that can stand on its own. These are then combined in bottom-up experimentation
with different (algorithmic) compositions. The components in the library are inspired by the
following concepts:

  • Chemistry & physics: atoms and molecules. Fullerenes are introduced in the composition as invisible grids (or signals) in the background. 
  • Biology: cells, single-celled organisms, viruses. 
  • Bio-electronics: chips, biochips, MEMS-technology (micro-electromechanical systems), nano-robotics, tissue self-assembly.  

A role (or behavior) is then assigned to the individual elements according to their location in the composition. The composition is based on an invisible grid circuit. The entire artwork acts as an imaginary biochip, powered by solar energy emitted from the window in the room. The window is the origin point of a fluid wave of components that ripples throughout the hallway along the walls. Components can be seen to interact with each other in interesting ways. They change state and ordering as the wave progresses. The hypothetical goal of the wave is to support one big cell, the receptor or brain of the biochip. From the left it is fed with energy to keep it alive. From the right it is fed with the genetic instructions that generate it.




"Solar Plant": A solar cell is a device used to convert the energy of sunlight into electricity. The blue elements in this panel are inspired by solar cells, mingled with ideas about parasitic symbiosis (the green elements) to achieve an aesthetically pleasing result. The combination also adds a plantlike quality to the composition, which is a play on the title (solar plant).



"Neuron (soma)": In nerve cells, the soma is the bulbous end of a neuron that receives chemical stimulation from the neuron’s branched projections, called dendrites. This panel shows an artistic
interpretation of a neuron passing on information.



"Kinetic String": A stream carries particles (or, if we may, units of information) off to form a cell. It is inspired by principles of fluidity and kinetic energy. The increase in pressure in the stream is visualized by a change in color.



"Exocytosis": Elements from the stream are captured and organized into a cell. Exocytosis is a cellular
process by which cells excrete waste products or chemical transmitters. This is depicted here with a force-based algorithm that repulses (or explodes) the elements. As the elements burst outwards, their capsule dissipates, leaving the content inside to form tissue.



"Self-assembly": The tissue is modeled by using a force-based algorithm in which the connections between the elements are springs that pull at neighboring elements (Hooke’s Law). This tissue basically
functions as food for our master cell further on.



"Nucleid": The cocoon-like elements growing from the top draw inspiration from receptor cells and the brain. The structure’s fictional name (Nucleid) is reminiscent of “nucleus”, but with a slight astronomical touch. This structure is the final goal of all the interactions in the artwork.



"DNA": DNA contains the genetic instructions for building and maintaining an organism. The green strands represent DNA molecules passing information extracted from the biochip to the master cell.



"Transmitter": In biotechnology, a biochip is a miniaturized laboratory with the ability to perform biochemical reactions. This is represented here by a chip-like wireframe that catches the signal emitted from the synapses further on.



"Synapses": In the nervous system synapses permit a neuron to pass signals to other cells. By analogy the elements in this panel are designed to interconnect in a network and reinforce each other’s signal (or energy, represented by incremental size). 



Technical limitations

The production of the final artwork introduced some problems against the technical limitations of
software, memory and printing machinery. NodeBox would habitually crash when rendering the intricately detailed source components. One component can consist of more than 500 color surfaces and we worked with a physics algorithm (i.e. explosions, water ripples etc.) that used hundreds of such elements.

We introduced a skeleton model that worked with simple rectangles in NodeBox, which were then replaced with the original components as the composition was piped to Adobe Illustrator.

Below is an Illustrator plugin that replaces simple rectangles with another shape in Illustrator. The position, rotation and scale of the rectangles is retained. The javascript source code is adopted from Iain Henderson and John Wundes. Our modifications make it quite messy but it does the job fine:


  • Place the script in Illustrator's plugins folder (e.g. Adobe Illustrator CS3 > Presets > Scripts)
  • In Illustrator, select all the rectangles, and the shape to copy onto each rectangle.
    This shape must be the top-level element on the canvas.
  • Run the script from the File menu: File > Scripts > CopyInRect 



Here's a booklet in PDF format with some more pictures (9MB).
It's not the final version but it'll do fine for onscreen reading.

Created by Ludivine Lechat and Tom De Smedt
Many thanks to Imke Debecker and Jo De Wachter at IMEC.